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Frequent-Flying Fish

Global Sushi

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A fishing boat in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Just 12 years ago, an astounded world looked on as McDonald’s served its first Big Mac in Moscow. Today, munching McNuggets in Bolivia or sipping Diet Coke in Mozambique is a quotidian activity. Within a decade, large corporations have infiltrated the world’s far-flung nooks and crannies. Global trade networks now extend even to provincial industries like bluefin tuna fishing. In fact, it’s quite likely that the raw tuna nibbled in posh Tokyo sushi restaurants was reeled in barely 48 hours before by the calloused hands of a third-generation New England fisherman.

In several published articles and a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Global Sushi, professor of anthropology Theodore C. Bestor explains how the burgeoning worldwide trade in bluefin tuna has transformed fishing communities from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to coastal Croatia. Fueled almost exclusively by Japanese demand for the rose-colored meat that is usually served raw as nigiri-zushi and sashimi, the bluefin market is a new and curious phenomenon for some communities.

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A bluefin tuna, this one worth $10,000. This catch was made not by commercial fishermen, but by amateurs on a charter in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Beginning in the 1970s, international fishing laws, coupled with efforts by environmental groups, prohibited Japan from trawling foreign waters in their own boats. To satisfy its voracious appetite for high-quality bluefin tuna, Japan had to import. In some regions, such as the waters off Barbate, Spain, Japanese companies continue to finance the trapping and supervision of bluefin. After six months of fattening-up in football field-sized pens, these tuna are auctioned at Tsukiji—Tokyo’s legendary fish market, the world’s largest. Other suppliers, like the Gloucester fishermen, were part of old, provincial communities long dependent on local markets for their livelihoods.

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A Japanese broker evaluates the quality of a bluefin tuna. He holds a slice of meat from the tail area.

Of all the suppliers in this new global chain, the New England fishermen’s participation may be the most unexpected. For years, commercial fishers shunned the bluefin, leaving it for the hooks of the weekend sportsmen. "There was always plenty of bluefin in New England," says Bestor, "but it was considered a trash commodity"—until Japanese businessmen started offering local fishermen $30,000 for a single tuna and then flying it out via 747 for auction in Tokyo. Very quickly, "something worthless was transformed into something of significant market value," Bestor explains. Economically hard-hit fishing communities welcomed these lucrative opportunities with enthusiasm. By the 1990s, Gloucester fishermen had become essential players in the worldwide bluefin market.

Today, a Massachusetts fisherman is often intimately involved in both catching and auctioning his product. When a tuna is brought to shore, negotiations begin right on the dock. Typically, several buyers, many of them Japanese, hover around the fish, checking fat content and judging color and visual appeal. Japan’s deep-rooted reverence for fish, and strict—if not Draconian—sushi standards, require fish to taste and look a certain way. "People in Japan pay a lot of attention to where their food is from, and the purity of it," Bestor explains. "It’s hard to put your trust in something that came from halfway around the globe."

Within hours, after calls to Japan to determine current prices, and after the highest bids are accepted, the tuna is en route. Submerged in crushed ice, it’s flown to Japan, then auctioned at Tsukiji just two days after leaving the Gloucester dock. "All this was impossible before the jumbo jet, the cell phone, and refrigeration technology," Bestor says.

Clockwise from top left: A poster for Osaka Airlines; tuna prepared for auction in Japan, with yellow stickers giving weight and provenance and blotting paper to prevent blood leaks; licensed bidders (note yellow badges on hats) at an auction; "tuna coffins," the insulated crates in which airlines fly the chilled fish, stacked in Osaka.
Photographs courtesy of Theodore Bestor

As an anthropologist, Bestor is most interested in globalization’s effects on individuals and communities. Tensions can emerge among existing social relationships, for example, when a tuna fisherman earns a windfall. "Such cleavages didn’t exist until the [economic] opportunity presented itself," he says. But the effects can also be benign. "We’re interconnected in ways we never thought about before," he says. For the first time, those who live by the ancient skill of fishing rely on remote and exotic markets. Many fishermen strive to understand a culture that prizes a fish they long considered worthless. "They’re interested in what makes the other side tick," says Bestor. Often, cultural understanding means anticipating the specific demands of Japanese customers, which translates into bigger profits. The fisherman who once looked aghast at a plate of raw tuna is now an expert on kata—the Japanese concept of ideal shape and form—and on how to unload fish properly from a boat (gently: any visible damage can reduce a fish’s market value). Yet, "These people wouldn’t think of themselves as global players," Bestor says. "They’re just ordinary folks doing ordinary things."

Although its global network depends on modern technology, New England bluefin tuna fishing remains traditional and romantic. Unlike lobsters, which are trapped and sold en masse, each tuna is caught the way it’s sold: individually. Using rod and reel, or harpoon, a fisherman may catch just two or three a season—and then only after a three-hour fight that would make Hemingway proud. "There’s something primordial about bluefin tuna fishing," Bestor muses. "It’s high art."